Nathaniel Hackett’s Projected Denver Offense: Part 1

The Denver Broncos offensive roster, as currently constructed, presents both opportunities and dilemmas. On the one hand, you have a generational talent at QB, returning to the sort of scheme that brought him two Super Bowl appearances (one win) early in his career. On the other hand, you have a young, largely untested offensive roster consisting of players who were (in many cases) drafted to play a very different scheme with very different demands. As such, how Denver’s young recently-drafted players are able to develop and build their skillsets will determine, to a large extent, how successful (and how diverse) Nathaniel Hackett’s Denver offense will become.

Starting with the wide receivers, Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick fit naturally in a wide zone scheme, as large downfield receivers who are also able blockers. In addition, their relatively wide catch radiuses and good sideline skills pair extremely well with Russell Wilson’s downfield passing prowess. Since it seems likely that Hackett will borrow from Matt LaFleur’s playbook and institute scripted 2nd phase route concepts (meaning that when the play is extended and Wilson is scrambling, there is a predetermined path to take at the end of the traditional route– a sort of scripted scramble drill), these two WRs will likely become highly productive in Hackett’s scheme.

However, while it is likely that Hackett’s base package will be 11 (meaning 3 WRs 1 TE and 1 RB– going both by LaFleur’s tendency’s in GB, and by the preponderance of talent on Denver’s roster) neither of these two WRs are great fits for Sean McVay’s 11 personnel approach to countering a Fangio-esque wide front (sweeps and zone wind-backs), since neither Patrick nor Sutton are quick/ fast enough to outrun defenders to the boundary. And so we reach our first projected dilemma.

Jerry Jeudy is a superlative route runner who offers excellent agility and speed while running routes– and with the ball in his hands. So on paper, he would seem like the perfect candidate to outflank defenses to the boundary when faced with a 6-1. However, Jeudy’s profile offers one critical weakness– his play strength (particularly while blocking) is notably subpar. So while Jeudy would likely excel with the ball in his hands in a Robert Woods-like role of sweeping WR (or backfield move WR), his blocking would likely be insufficient as a lead blocker for an RB (as a reminder, zone wind-backs (which were discussed in part 2 of this series) are when a RB sprints to the sideline following a sweeping WR, where the WR then acts as his lead blocker at the edge of the field). In other words, Jeudy running to the boundary would fail to offer the McVay-esque depth of options necessary for an effective overall 6-1 counter.

In fact, Jeudy’s lack of play strength in general presents a bit of a conundrum for this offensive style, where blocking from WRs is absolutely essential. Since in Shanahan schemes so many plays are brought to the edge of the field by the horizontally geared running game, if WRs fail to sustain their blocks, the play-side numerical advantage generally enjoyed by these schemes falls apart. Although Pat Shurmur was criticized in 2021 for often faking a jet sweep to Jerry Jeudy (while rarely handing him the ball), these sweeps were likely an attempt to draw Jeudy’s defender away from the play– a way to schematically eliminate a potential tackler without actually forcing Jeudy to block his man (where he was often outmatched). In other words, one Denver coaching staff– the one that drafted him– already tried to schematically minimize Jeudy’s liabilities in blocking (with mixed results). So while Jeudy offers near- Davante Adams level quick separation skills, and his in-breaking route prowess will likely be extremely valuable for sustaining drives and misdirecting the defense (again in a move-WR Davante Adams-type role), for as long as his blocking remains subpar, the potential playbook may have to be limited while Jeudy is on the field.

KJ Hamler similarly presents both opportunities and dilemmas. Hamler might be quite useful on sweeps as a runner, but while he shows better center core strength than Jeudy and can likely prevent defenders from going straight ahead when tasked with blocking, his poor lateral strength would still likely allow a fair number of tacklers to circumvent their way to the ball carrier. So his fit in this role– like Jeudy’s– is questionable. However, while Hamler is not as good a fit as Jeudy in a Davante Adams move WR type role (his route running is not to the same level of crispness/ initial separation), Hamler’s exceptional speed (once he fully recovers from his ACL tear) will consistently stress defenses deep (particularly paired with Wilson’s superlative deep passing), affording the rest of the offense extra space to work underneath. Hamler will also likely benefit from LaFleur-esque 2nd phase route concepts, making covering him on extended plays all but impossible. So Hamler will likely fill an important role stretching the field vertically, even if his ability to stretch defenses horizontally (on sweeps/ wind-backs) never materializes.

The final receiver who fits this category of opportunities and dilemmas (again, one who was initially drafted to play a different offensive style) is Albert Okwuegbuenam. When Albert O was drafted, it seemed almost an extreme test of the hypothesis that biomechanical borrowing limits future developmental potential– O was so raw and un-refined (with so little borrowing system wide) that it begged the question of prior work ethic. And while O shows superlative natural talents with rare speed, length, and soft hands for a man his size, his blocking remains far below the level required for a Shanahan-style two way TE– one who is often tasked with occupying DEs/ OLBs all the way to the edge of the field. If O can refine his natural talents in route running and greatly improve his blocking skills (particularly laterally), he will likely become an extremely productive player– one who is able to stretch defenses up the seam, provide a wide/ soft target in the red zone, and even sometimes line up in the backfield. However, like Jeudy and Hamler, until Okwuegbunam can be trusted to successfully block his opposing defender, his presence will likely limit the playbook and hamper the ability of Hackett to scheme up counters (such as Kyle Shanahan-esque power/ duo runs) to wide fronts. Fortunately, O likely possesses the biomechanical slack to be able to make great gains in this area assuming he puts in the work. As such, Okwuegbunam projects as a long term X factor for this offense– one who could (if his natural talents are fully tapped) provide both playmaking pop and playbook versatility. But in the meantime, he seems more likely to play a limited (albeit still likely productive) move TE/ large receiver role.

There is one more receiving threat worth discussion– one who has largely escaped notice to this point of the offseason. Kendall Hinton, although still quite raw as a receiver during his first couple seasons in the NFL, offers tantalizing natural systemic efficiency/ development (oriented posterior laterally). If Hinton can continue to refine his route running, his combination of naturally quick cuts, soft/ strong hands, and powerful blocking could enable him to serve as a sort of playbook swiss army knife– a player who can as easily serve as lead blocker on a screen as be capable of catching a crucial third down slant. While his lack of top end speed/ separation skills will likely prevent Hinton from becoming a true top tier receiving threat, he could easily end up serving as this offense’s all-purpose weapon– doing everything from lining up in the backfield, to catching/ blocking at the boundary, to setting up picks for other receivers to make their YAC. In other words, Hinton may end up being the anti-Jerry Jeudy– someone who is not there to make flashy plays or scare the defense deep, but rather who keeps the playbook open to its last page, and forces defenders to play physically or be overrun.